The In T View: Bill Putnam, Combat Photographer On Iraq, War, Photography, And Blogging
Bill Putnam from Portland, Oregon, today's guest in the In T View, served for eight years as a photojournalist with the American military in both Kosovo and Iraq. After his tour of duty with the Army's 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment in Iraq ended, he returned to the country as an embedded Photojournalist working for the Zuma
Press and as a freelancer for Time Magazine.
Bill, who has written for newspapers, journals, and magazines, besides doing radio reports for North Country Public Radio, is also the proud proprietor of the very fine An independent look at Iraq blog, where you can peruse his wide range of beautiful photographs and his thoughts about Iraq. Bill will soon be moving to a new photographic assignment in Washington D.C., where he'll be covering the White House and Capitol Hill.
THE JOURNEY THERE
Mister Ghost: Should the United States have gone to War against Iraq?
Bill Putnam: That's a hard question to crack. I never thought about the grand political schemes or conspiricies that drove the war. I just know from the trench level, where I spent 99 percent of my time, that the Iraq was wasn't what we were told. So the question of whether we should've gone to war or not really, to me, is unanswerable. Everyone has their own opinion on the subject. The tough answer whether we like it or not is that we're there, we're stuck and we have to do what we can.
Mister Ghost: In one of your blog entries, you said your tour of duty in Iraq was over in about five months and you were never returning to Iraq. You were pretty emphatic about it. And yet, there you were, less than a year later, back in Iraq as a civilian photojournalist. What motivated you to return to the country?
Bill Putnam: I went back to cover the biggest war of my generation. It took a chance meeting with a veteran war correspondent to motivate me. Then I started thinking about photographing war. My first bit of conflict photography came during my deployment to Kosovo in 1999. I just felt like I was photographing something real, something tangible. Having the opportunity to photograph the war wasn't an easy one to decide upon. So the decision to come back was a big one that only happened after a bit of luck and a lot of thinking.
Mister Ghost: How difficult was it to actually return to Iraq? What obstacles did you face?
Bill Putnam: Going back wasn't too difficult. The only obstacle I faced was getting the mental stamina to go back. I'd been there for a year before and was thoroughly exhausted by it.
Mister Ghost: Had you had any prior combat photography experience in a War Zone before you got to Iraq?
Bill Putnam: The only experience I had in a war zone was my two deployments to Kosovo in 1999 and 2001. But I can't really count that second trip as a war zone. Kosovo was calm by then.The first trip though, I think, prepared me mentally for the stresses of it very early in my career.
IMPRESSIONS OF IRAQ
Mister Ghost: Did the Iraq of reality match up to the Iraq of your fantasies or dreams?
Bill Putnam: Fantasies or dreams... I never had dreams or fantasies of Iraq.
Mister Ghost: Iraq, the Hot. You were there in the Heart of the Dragon's Breath. Describe the Heat to us?
Bill Putnam: Ok, I can sink my teeth into this answer. The heat is unimaginable to anyone from the West. Imagine sitting in a sauna set at 140F. You're wearing anywhere from 25-50 pounds of gear. Now, hold up a hair dryer going full blast to your face. You're obviously sweating, a lot. The sweat chafes your skin almost raw. Your face, hands and feet swell up from the heat too. You drink water and gatorade all the time but the sweat never ends. Now put a 5-pound kevlar helmet on. Soon your head gets hot. Yes, it really is hot and I'm not sure I can even adequetly describe it. Hopefully this answer does it some justice.
Mister Ghost: You were a Corporal in the Army's 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. Can you tell us what your role in Iraq was and how it was different from your experience in Kosovo?
Bill Putnam: Comparing Kosovo and my first time in Iraq is hard. Both missions were different. Most of the Kosovars loved NATO's presence. Most Iraqis don't want Americans or foriegners there. Job wise it wasn't that different. I covered the military and dealt with the civilian media a lot.
Mister Ghost: Baghdad is?
Bill Putnam: A Hobbesian landscape of the strong eating the weak.
Mister Ghost: Mosul was?
Bill Putnam: A place where the fault lines of Iraq lie completely naked. Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Christians... all groups live there and all are vying for control. I only regret not being able to stay longer and explore them.
Mister Ghost: You mentioned garbage, garbage, everywhere in the neighborhoods of Baghdad. Piling up next to tidy houses, blowing in the hot breeze, children jumping over it, trash being burnt by the Iraqis... and the Raw Sewage wafting out in the open.. So, what type of impression did this leave on you?
Bill Putnam: The immense amounts of garbage... was a sign of the war and the collapse of Iraqi society. Its also a sign that humans can adapt to almost any situation. At first I wondered why anyone could live hat way. Its obviously unhealthy so why not clean up your block? But the ironic thing was every home's courtyard was clean. Some even had a small patch of grass. Then after a time I understood the trash and sewage outside was a sign of Iraqi society. It had devloved into something like anarchy. In other words it had become "I don't care about you, just about me and mine." That understanding helped me deal with it. That trash was also a sign the Coalition was swimming against the current.
Mister Ghost: Bill, Iraq receives such negative publicity: bombings, killings, unrest, kidnappings, civil strife...It's sort of portrayed as Hell on Earth by the Media. Having experienced Iraq from both a soldier's and photojournalist's perspective, what did you like about the country?
Bill Putnam: My experiences with Iraqi civilians was fairly limited at first. Either they worked for the Coalition or I met them during a raid on their homes. It wasn't until I came back as a civilian and lived downtown that I really met them. So I can say I miss the people I met over there.
Mister Ghost: And conversely, what did you dislike about Iraq?
Bill Putnam: The fact I could be kidnapped and murdered simply because I'm a westerner.
Mister Ghost: What didn't you have in Iraq, that you had in the States?
Bill Putnam: I didn't have a lot of alcohol in Iraq.
Mister Ghost: In the end, do you feel that Iraq was worth your time and effort?
Bill Putnam: I do feel Iraq was worth the time and effort. It was the biggest war my country has fought since Vietnam. Covering it, even if my bit of it was small, means I'm part of the historical record.
Mister Ghost: You said in an interview with David Sommerstein on NCPR that, "I just wanted to tell the story of Iraq." Do you think you succeeded?
Bill Putnam: I think I told one small part of the story. Unfortunately I couldn't move around downtown and talk with individual Iraqis and photograph them going about their lives. I believe I would've done a better job telling the story of Iraq as it goes through this war if movement around the country didn't make me a target.
IRAQ AND ITS PEOPLE
Mister Ghost: Are the Iraqis a likeable people?
Bill Putnam: Yes, I like the Iraqi people.
Mister Ghost: Tell me about someone you met in Iraq who impressed you and why?
Bill Putnam: The Iraqis who really impressed me were the journalists or those who worked with Western journos. They risked a lot to tell the story of Iraq.
Mister Ghost: The Iraqis are known to be hospitable. Can you give us an example of this?
Bill Putnam: Sure. One day in January I was out with an infantry platoon from 1-10th Mountain north of Abu Ghraib. We arrived at a house in the ville and this old man, he said he was the ville sheik, invited us in for tea. We sat in his house for a couple of hours talking with him about his home, his family and the recent elections. A couple of months before that in Mosul, I was out on an operation with squad from 2nd of the 1st Infantry. We were out on a rooftop and the family came up and offered us tea and cookies. Little things, sure, but worthwhile to remember and experience.
Mister Ghost: You were worried about the Interperetors or "Terps" and other Iraqis that worked with the Coalition forces. The insurgents were threatening them and killing them off. You had a good, brave Iraqi friend Leon, who served as an interpretor for your unit and you tried to help him and his family emigrate away to a safer place. Can you give us an update on Leon?
Bill Putnam: I've lost track of Leon and its impossible for me to figure out where is right now.
Mister Ghost: Bill, you're a big guy at 6-5, 250 pounds, do you think your size intimidated the Iraqis you encountered, since they lived and still live, in a fear and respect-based society?
Bill Putnam: Mmmm, you know that's a good question. My hope is no, my size didn't intimidate anyone. I liked to talk with the Iraqis and made my body language open to them. I smiled and laughed with them as well. I also tried speaking very, very rudimentary Arabic. If they said something to me I would say "na'am, na'am" or 'yes, yes.' Or I would say 'mer-haba' or which usually means 'welcome' or 'hello' This, I think, helped me talk with them.
Mister Ghost: During your time in Iraq, you had a chance to meet with American and Iraqi soldiers, but because of the security situation, you felt you would be a big target if you tried to interact with Iraqi civilians. Do you regret that you weren't able to have a friendly relationship with the regular Iraqis?
Bill Putnam: Yes, very much so. I have a whole list of things I want to do with Iraqis that I couldn't because of the security situation. Maybe one day I'll be able to do that stuff. The locals have a saying for that hope too: "insha' allah."
IRAQI WOMEN AND CHILDREN
Mister Ghost: You said in an early post in your blog, Grown women in this society are ghosts, seen and not heard; they seem so relegated, sadly, to nothing in this society. Did you find this was the case throughout Iraq, or were the Iraqi women in the larger cities like Baghdad a more visible open presence?
Bill Putnam: Iraqi women were always visible but speaking to them wasn't really an option. The only time I did talk to them was the random encounter I had with women journalists.
Mister Ghost: Didn't you mention that the Coalition forces were going out of their way to be kind to the Iraqi women, trying to win them over, because they possessed a great deal of influence in the domestic sphere?
Bill Putnam: The relationship I saw between men and women was a skewed one. Much of the time I was around regular Iraqis the men were sheltering the women to protect them.
Mister Ghost: "La chokalota - la chokolata," the Iraqi kids screamed out, as the American soldiers handed them candy. "Mistah! Mistah! Give me chockalot! Give me Pepsi!" they said to you. Did you get the sense the Iraqi children were starved for attention and niceties?
Bill Putnam: It depended on where I was but I had a sense kids were starved for attention and niceties, espcially in places around Baghdad like al-Dora, a generally poor mixed neighborhood.
Mister Ghost: In Baghdad's al-Rashid neighborhood, you saw a father with his child's blood on his hands. It was the night of the church bombings, and the Iraqi man apparently panicked and ran his car through the military checkpoint. The soldiers opened fire and one of the bullets grazed the child's temple, causing a blood clot and eventual death. Bill, what can you say about something like that? Is it a memory that haunts you, or after witnessing so much violence, you become desensitized to another death?
Bill Putnam: Its funny you ask that question. I was just looking at those photos last night. Sure, that night does haunt me to a degree. What I remember most are the sounds. Of men trying to save this boy's life. Of a father wailing in anguish. Of radios. Of Humvees idling. I don't think I'm desensitized to death. I've seen a lot of it and its all tragic. What bothers me, what haunts me really, is the seeing this boy fighting a losing and ultimately unnessacary fight.
Mister Ghost: Are you optimistic about the future of Iraq's children?
Bill Putnam: No, I'm afraid not. Life for them in the forseeable future is going to be hell.
Mister Ghost: You spent time embedded with the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, I believe in Mosul. How many different units were you embedded with in Iraq and did you have a favorite?
Bill Putnam: The 1-10 Mountain was around northwest Baghdad. My first embed was in Mosul with the 172nd Stryker Brigade. I was embedded with... *counting on my fingers* five different units of brigade (about 3,000 soldiers) or battalions (about 600 soldiers). My favorite, if I had to pick one, was the 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Most of the grunts were veterans of the March 2003 invasion. A few of the first deployment into Afghanistan in late-2001. One battalion commander I met jumped into northern Iraq during the 2003 invasion with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. I spent about four months with one company, Abu Company, 1-187th Infantry, who were stationed in and around Bayji, Iraq.
This unit really understood counter-insurgency warfare and approached it with a good vision. Instead of just patrolling, which is something most units are guilty of, they actually got out and interacted with the locals. It resulted into a situation that could've been a very hard insurgency in the middle of the Sunni Triangle into something more manageable. Of course, there was some bang bang and that made life interesting. But I believe it could've been a lot worse and the unit did everything they could to difuse the situation.
Mister Ghost: How much freedom were you given as an embedded photojournalist? What restrictions were placed on you?
Bill Putnam: I was given pretty much open access to the units I embedded with. Obviously I could hear but not talk about certain things because they would violate operational security. Other times photographed detainees and couldn't transmit photos with their
uncovered faces; that would violate the Geneva Conventions.
Mister Ghost: As a former soldier yourself, how tough is the job the soldiers do?
Bill Putnam: The job these guys and gals face over ther is incredibly difficult. It was very, very difficult in 2004. By late 2005 and early 2006 the situation had become almost untenable. Sectarian violence had reared its ugly, distorted head. The individual grunt down in the trenches sees all this going on and is trying his best to stop it. Whether this Herculean effort can stop all the violence won't be decided down at their level. That's to be decided by the Iraqi people.
Mister Ghost: From your own perspectives as first a soldier, and then a member of the Media, do you feel your fellow members of the American Media are doing a good job of accurately portraying what's happening with the American Military in Iraq?
Bill Putnam: Yes, I think they are. Its a tough tough situation for both sides and covering that isn't easy. I still marvel that it still gets done.
Mister Ghost: Can you tell us what your scariest experience in Iraq was? What gave you serious heart palpitations?
Bill Putnam: My first raid as a civilian journo was by far the scariest. During my time as a soldier-photog, I carried a weapon. This time I was naked. Nothing. Approaching that house in the dark with just my cameras was the scariest thing I'd ever done.
Mister Ghost: You were staying near the Al-Hamra Hotel in Baghdad when it was bombed. When you are close by to a large explosion like that, what do you feel at the time? What thoughts are racing through your head?
Bill Putnam: The first reacion I had was "what the fuck was that?" Then I woke up and walked out into the living room of the house. The local staffers were there and kept telling me to go into my room. I was about to turn when the second -- and much bigger -- bomb went off. My only thought when the shock wave hit and the room brightend up considerably was "hoooollly fuuuck!"
At that point, with gunfire going off in the near distance, I ran into my room threw on some clothes, grabbed my cameras and ran out the door. I was one of the first two photogs on the site. As you can imagine, it was incredibly chaotic. I just wanted to capture what was going on around me. Doing all that I had one thought running through my mind like a tape reel: "this is unbelievable..."
I still think about this first minutes after the bombing and wonder who we got out of it alive.
Mister Ghost: Could you tell us about the genesis of your blog, An independent look at Iraq? How did it come about, and why you became interested in blogging?
Bill Putnam: I first started blogging in 2004 during my time in Baghdad as a soldier. I kept it very low-key and didn't tell anyone in my unit about it. It was interesting to me because it was the advent of a new type of journalism, something immediate and what I thought was pure.
How I found them originally is something I'm not sure about.
Mister Ghost: When you were in Iraq, did you have a chance to read any of the Iraqi blogs? If so, did you think their perceptions of life there, concurred with your views of the situation?
Bill Putnam: I had a chance to read some blogs occassionally. But nothing on a regular basis.
Mister Ghost: Back in 2004, the US Military cracked down on Military Bloggers like Colby Buzzell of My War, because they were allegedly revealing sensitive information. Did this have any effect on your blogging? Was it an overreaction by the DOD and do you think they were trying to filter the news coming out of Iraq?
Bill Putnam: Yes, I do think this was DOD over-reacting. But I don't think this was direct attempt to filter the news coming out of the war. That was just an unintended benefit.
I remember reading about Colby's blog, reading it myself and liking it immensely. Here was a guy who trully reflected life in a war for what it was: brutal and boring.
The problem with shutting blogs down is the justification is its entirely subjective. Cobly's blog went against the grain... ie "this war sucks ass" then someone who believes in the war and is a position of power can shut you down. This happened to Colby.
What I don't think has been discussed is this reaction by DOD might be an echo of Viet Nam. In Colby's case he was actively saying what war was like. His command probably saw this is a threat to good order and discpline in the unit.
After all, if he felt this way how many others did?
What commander would want a bunch of guys breaking down the order of a unit in the middle of a fight, even if the fight was probably unjustified? This happened in Viet Nam. This may sound simplistic but commanders saw this happening in Viet Nam. The Army didn't want that happen. So they cracked down on it the first time something similar came up. They justified it by saying ti was about operational secrity. If they were really concerned about "op sec" they'd censure our emails and listen to our phone calls.
Mister Ghost: Do you have any favorite blogs you like to read and can recommend?
Bill Putnam: The one I actively followed was Chris Allbritton's blog www.back-to-iraq.com. Chris has moved on to Lebanon so there's not so much Iraq coverage anymore. Other times I'd run into blogs and read them but nothing like dedicated reading because I didn't have the time. Now I have the time and NBC News' blog is a good one. I've also read Bill Roggio's blog too. Iraq The Model is a good one as well. Recently I started tuning into The Angry Arab News Service.
Mister Ghost: How did you hook up as a free-lancer with Time Magazine?
Bill Putnam: This is pretty funny story. About five or six days before the Jan. 30, 2005, elections I was on Camp Liberty where the rest of my unit was stationed. Coming back from a detail I saw Michael Ware and Franco Pagetti standing by a Humvee. They'd just been picked up after a long embed with the 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Brigade. I walked up to Michael and introduced myself.
"I liked your stuff with the insurgents," I told him. He looked geniunely surprised to hear that from an American soldier. That was when I had the brilliant idea of wanting to come back. I'd kicked the idea around a bit but never thought about just asking someone for help. So I did.
Michael said he could help me out so I could come back and photograph for the magazine. A few weeks later a letter arrived from Michael. So I went back with that one and my agency letter.
Mister Ghost: What do you think you are saying through your photography? What exactly are you trying to tell us?
Bill Putnam: My approach to photography is to make people think about war and conflict. I want people to think about what we're doing to ourselves.
Mister Ghost: Good Photography. A Science? An Art? Hard Work? Intuition? Experience?Or all of the above?
Bill Putnam: Definitely all of the above and I'm still learning it. I'll never stop learning it because no image is perfect. Nor is any photographer.
Mister Ghost: Is there an act of creation involved in taking a photograph?
Bill Putnam: Yeah, I think there is an act. You're capturing one/one-thousandths of a second of time. It takes a bit of preperation and luck to capture that time.
Mister Ghost: You carried about 45 pounds of equipment and three cameras while on assignment in Iraq. Did you really need all those cameras? Is combat photography really that rough on the equipment?
Bill Putnam: I definitely needed all that equipment and it really was rough on my gear. I've spent around $1,500 cleaning and readjusting it all.
Each of my cameras did a different job. One was my Leica M6; I shot film with it. Shooting it caused me to think a different way and try and capture moments the differently. My main body was my Nikon D1x with a 17-35mm lens. I used that in close in moments. The other body was my Nikon D2h with an 80-200. I hardly ever used it.
Mister Ghost: The last thing the insurgent saw before he died was you taking a picture of him. Were there some photographs that you didn't make public, and could you tell us why?
Bill Putnam: I didn't release that photo for personal reasons. Early in my career I read about photogs who'd done that very act and wondered how they could live with themselves. I never intended to take that man's last moments alive.
There were also other photographs I took that couldn't be released because they'd violate my embedding ground rules.
Mister Ghost: Combat photography is a dangerous occupation. Would you put your life on the line to get the perfect shot, say a "Pulitzer Prize" winning photograph?
Bill Putnam: I don't know if I would risk my life for a shot like that. Most Pulitizer winning shots aren't readily apparent. Its only during the post-processing work that you realize that.
Mister Ghost: So, what does the future hold for Bill Putnam?
Bill Putnam: I'm moving to Washington, D.C. this winter to finish up my degree in History. I'll continue my photography there by covering Capitol Hill and the White House for my agency, ZUMA Press.
Mister Ghost: Would you like to go back to Iraq?
Bill Putnam: I never say never but the chances of me going back to Iraq are slim.
Mister Ghost: Will you be covering any more wars?
Bill Putnam: My next trip will be to Afghanistan next summer in between semesters.
Mister Ghost: Final question Bill, and thanks very much for a gracious In T View: Do you have any advice for a crazy person like myself, who would like to go to Iraq unembedded and blog from all around the country?
Bill Putnam: Yeah, don't do it unless you have a lot of money for security and just general living. Thanks for having me.